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Defending what's theirs

 Former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts, left, tries to avoid a tackle by Richmond’s Boston McConnell during the Panthers’ season opener Saturday night at the Albany Civic Center. McConnell got the better of Cutts on this play, but the speedy wideout would score a touchdown later in Albany’s 40-28 victory. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts, left, tries to avoid a tackle by Richmond’s Boston McConnell during the Panthers’ season opener Saturday night at the Albany Civic Center. McConnell got the better of Cutts on this play, but the speedy wideout would score a touchdown later in Albany’s 40-28 victory. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Corey Rue lifted off, soaring through the air and over the goal line.

And with Rue’s late interception return for a touchdown, the Albany Panthers lifted off, too.

Rue picked off an Antwon Young pass with 6:28 left in Saturday night’s game at the Albany Civic Center and ran it back 42 yards to lift the Panthers to a 40-28 season-opening victory against the Richmond Raiders.

“I had to make a highlight for the papers at the end,” said Rue, a defensive back who also led the Panthers with six tackles.

The Panthers’ offense struggled the whole night, and Albany quarterback Cecil Lester, who finished an uncharacteristic 11-for-23 with three touchdowns and an interception, told Rue and the defense that they needed to make a play.

Rue picked off the errant pass from Young at the Albany 8-yard line and weaved in and out of blocks until finally diving past a Raider and into the end zone to give the Panthers a 38-28 lead, which was raised to 40-28 after Geoff Boyer kicked the PAT, followed by an uno.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Rue said. “I saw the end zone. And I saw my blockers, so I had to follow. I had to get there. I had to win it.”

Playing in front of a large home crowd, Lester knew his Panthers needed a win, too — not just to start the season off 1-0, but to back up the 2011 SIFL Championship banner that was unveiled before kickoff.

“It was very important to start off with a win when you are playing at home in front of your home-town fans, especially after coming off last year’s season,” Lester said. “We had to start off with a win. Everybody is going to give us their best shot. We have a bulls-eye on our backs.”

Both teams struggled early to get anything going offensively.

Albany hadn’t played since beating the Louisiana Swashbucklers in last season’s SIFL title game, and Richmond had just one game under its belt — a victory against Columbus is last week’s opener of the newly founded Professional Indoor Football League that the Panthers now belong too.

The teams traded turnovers on downs to start the game, and then Jason Lowett caught a 15-yard pass from Young with 6:57 left in the first quarter to put the first points on the board.

Albany didn’t score until there was 2:55 remaining in the first quarter when former Westover star Antwone Savage, who finished with three catches for 22 yards, caught one of his two touchdown passes. The Panthers found the end zone two more times in the half — a 16-yard pass to Savage just 43 seconds into the second quarter and a 23-yard pass to former Americus-Sumter star Antwon Cutts with 4:35 left in the half.

“We didn’t play last week, and obviously you can tell we were a little late on throws and had dropped passes and missed opportunities,” said Lester, who also ran for a touchdown in the second half. “That kind of stuff comes with playing more.”

Albany third-year coach Lucious Davis said first-game nerves had a lot to do with the slow start to the season.

“It wasn’t pretty at all,” Davis said. “I think a lot of the guys were overly excited and had first-game jitters. I think that’s why we missed a bunch of throws, but that’s expected.”

Savage’s second touchdown gave the Panthers a lead they never relinquished, but the Raiders got to within 32-28 with 9:34 left in the game when T.C. Stevens hit one of his two field goals.

After Stevens’ field goal, Richmond’s Chris Johnson picked up a Derrick Wimbush fumble, giving the Raiders great field position and a chance to take the lead. However, that was when Rue found himself “in the right place at the right time” and snagged his first interception of the season.

“This game is built for offense, so when your defense can hold somebody to 40 and 28 points, that’s what you want,” Richmond coach James Fuller said. “I think they are a very well-coached team. They play with a lot of emotion, and when they get your back against the wall they try to finish you off. They have guys who make plays, and we just couldn’t make those plays.”

Young led the Raiders in rushing and passing, completing 14-of-36 passes for 147 yards and running 11 times for 75 yards. Wimbush led the Panthers in rushing with 19 yards on six attempts, and former Americus-Sumter star John Harris, who was held out of the end zone, had a team-high 45 receiving yards.

The Panthers will hit the road next week for a rematch of last year’s title game against the Swashbucklers at 8 p.m. in Lake Charles, La.